Pope Francis and the Zika Virus

(By Ariana Bascom, Queen’s University)

It is not often that the Pope of the Catholic Church condones the use of contraception among Catholics. Yet, this is exactly what Pope Francis told the journalists accompanying him on his flight back to Rome after giving a sermon at the U.S-Mexican border. While still viewing contraception in an unfavorable light, Francis acknowledges they may be useful in combatting the spread of an illness declared by the WHO as a global health emergency, the Zika virus.

While the Zika virus has been documented for over 50 years, it was not recorded outside of its place of origin, Africa, until 2007 when an outbreak was reported in Micronesia; a cluster of islands in the Pacific. Because the virus is fairly new to the mainstream population, there is low immunity to it, which causes it to spread even faster. It has since become an international concern that began when an outbreak was reported in Brazil in May of 2015. The virus itself is categorized as a flavivirus, meaning that it is transferred through mosquitos, placing it in the same family as the West Nile Virus and Dengue Fever. Transmission typically occurs when a mosquito that has drawn blood from an infected person bites an uninfected victim. However, there have even been a few instances in which the virus was contracted through blood transfer or sexual transmission. The symptoms of the virus are mild (fever, conjunctivitis, muscle pain, and headaches) and rarely result in hospitalization or fatalities.  As a result, when reports of the virus initially emerged in Brazil, health ministers dismissed it as ‘benign’ and did not feel the need to actively combat it. However, the risk associated with the Zika virus grows exponentially when a pregnant woman is infected.

While not much is known about the virus, there is a clear correlation between locations in which the virus is found and the increase of babies born with the neurological defect known as microcephaly. Literally meaning ‘small head,’ with an underdeveloped brain, microcephaly can lead to serious developmental issues and premature death. There are about 150 cases of microcephaly reported annually in Brazil; since October 2015 that number has skyrocketed to over 4000. The number of pregnant women diagnosed with the Zika virus in Brazil, and the spike in babies born with microcephaly has raised such enormous concern that a mass mobilization is now taking place.

Fear of the potential spread of this virus have been elevated by the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Festival and Brazil’s role as the host of the 2016 Winter Olympics. Olympian Hope Solo has already said that she would not go to Rio today, which brings to light the risks female athletes may face if they choose to compete. In addition to Brazil, 24 other countries in the Americas have issued travel warnings due to locally reported outbreaks of the Zika virus. Some, like Colombia, have advised women to postpone pregnancy. In the meantime, 15 major pharmaceutical companies have been competing to develop a vaccine for the virus. Reaching a stage where clinical trials could take place may take up to 18 months, while confirming the definite link between the Zika virus and microcephaly could take up to 6 months.

Pope Francis has urged scientists to continue developing a vaccine for the disease, believing it is the only way to stop the virus from spreading. His agreement to the use of contraception by women in affected countries is a curious departure from Catholic doctrine, especially in a region known for its conservative Catholic populace.

Since the beginnings of Catholicism, contraception has been viewed as a thing of evil and was punishable by public humiliation or death. The Bible’s only mention of contraception, referred to as coitus interruptus, occurs in the story of Onan, in the 38th chapter of the book of Genesis. When Onan spills his seed on the ground instead of fulfilling his Biblical duty of inseminating his brother’s widow, God killed him. Today, the Catholic Church retains its long held belief toward artificial contraception despite other branches of Christianity, such as Anglicans and Protestants, which have condoned contraception in all scenarios since the 1930’s. The Church’s stance was further emphasized in 1968 when the Pope residing at the time, Paul VI, published his encyclical Humanae Vitae. In it, the Church’s traditional views towards marriage and the condemnation of contraception are reaffirmed.  On the other hand, Paul VI condoned the use of contraception by nuns in the Belgian Congo during this time, due to the high number of rapes taking place there.

In Pope Francis’ own words, “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil.” In a similar manner to Paul VI’s actions toward the nuns in the Belgian Congo, Pope Francis views the use contraception as a necessary measure in a time of crisis. The alarming correlation between pregnant women infected with the Zika virus and the spike of microcephaly is also a concern for many of the impoverished people living in Brazil who may not have the resources to accommodate children with this condition. It is also interesting to note that at the height of the AIDS crisis contraception remained condemned, illustrating how a Pope like Francis during these times of crisis can lead to a shift in Catholic perspective.

As the first South American Pope, Francis’ personal experiences and his frequent trips to impoverished areas may have contributed to his arrival at this stance. He has already been lauded as significantly more progressive than his predecessors. Francis regularly stays connected to his followers through Twitter, and as a result of these factors, the statements he makes regarding aspects of our everyday life have a resounding impact across the world. His absolution of the use of contraception was widely discussed in the media and has received more attention than Pope Paul VI’s pardon.

Even though Pope Francis is introducing this new move as one that stems from practicality (he considers abortion an act of evil, even if it is to combat the negative effects of the Zika virus), it still raises questions that may influence a more liberal shift within the Church. For instance, contraception is advised for all women living in Zika-ravaged areas, married or not.  How might this influence the more traditional South Americans in the years to come? Preventing pregnancy to combat the negative effects of certain viruses and diseases may evolve into an official approval from the Catholic church to use contraception as protection from a wider range of illness such as AIDS. Could this mean that there is a chance that the Catholic Church may follow the Anglicans and Protestants in eventually condoning contraception in all situations? As an important step towards protecting unborn children from the effects of the Zika virus, the Pope’s softening stance toward contraception also has social implications that could mean a change within the Catholic Church that has not been experienced since its very inception.




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